The Pigman Essays and Criticism
by Paul Zindel

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Themes of Aging and Death

(Novels for Students)

Throughout The Pigman, all of the characters reveal their attitudes toward aging and, particularly, death. Death is frequently mentioned throughout the story, and one of the main themes of the book is how awareness of death and its finality eventually leads John and Lorraine to mature and take responsibility for their lives. This is not a lesson they could have learned from their families, or at school. As the book shows, most of the adults they encounter are not supportive, are unhelpful, and are too caught up in their own problems to help the teenagers sort out the answers to the deep questions they carry in their hearts. It takes the Pigman's life, and his death, to make them realize that they need to change their attitudes and their behavior toward both life and death.

Lorraine's mother, Mrs. Jensen, who ironically works as a private nurse for elderly and terminally ill people, has a callous attitude towards death. She steals things from her patients, calls them names like "old fossil," and is unmoved by their death, as shown by one of her conversations with Lorraine. Lorraine, who is far more sensitive, asks about the patient, "Did he die?" Her mother replies, "Of course he died. I told his daughter two days ago he wasn't going to last the week. Put some coffee water on." When referring to another patient, Lorraine's mother remarks, "I wish this one would go ahead and croak because her husband is getting a little too friendly lately." She's so consumed by her own past problems with her husband that she has no thought for the suffering of the sick woman she's taking care of.

Similarly, Mrs. Jensen is so wrapped up in her need for money that even a patient's death becomes a financial opportunity to look forward to. She gloats over the fact that the undertaker gives her ten dollars for every customer she refers to him, and she notes that she may switch to referring patients' families to another funeral home "when the next one croaks," because she's heard that they will give twenty dollars for the same favor.

John's father developed liver disease from excessive drinking, and although he quit drinking, his diagnosis evidently didn't make him reflect very deeply about his life. He lives a circumscribed, joyless, almost mechanical life; his mood is determined by how many lots he sells in a day, and he considers anything other than work to be "a waste of time." His job is extremely stressful, so stressful that John can't imagine doing it: "I've been over to the Exchange and seen all the screaming and barking he has to do just to earn a few bucks," he writes. Mr. Conlan is aware that eventually, all this "screaming and barking" and accumulated stress of his job will probably kill him, and he uses the threat of his own death as leverage to try and get John to agree to take over his business: "The business will be half yours, and you know it. I can't take the strain much longer." Mr. Conlan also reminds John, "Your mother isn't going to be around forever either, you know. When she's dead, you're going to wish to God you'd been nicer to her." This use of death as a tool to try and control his son's behavior is ineffective; although John is secretly disturbed by the fact that his parents will die someday, he's angered by his father's manipulation and negative attitude toward John's true dreams.

Mrs. Conlan never mentions death, just as she never mentions anything "unpleasant." Her days are spent in a whirl of anxious cleaning, smoothing things over, hovering between her husband and son. Whenever anything unpleasant arises, she either leaves the room, begins cleaning, or offers falsely cheery distractions, such as asking "Do you both want whipped cream and nuts on your strawberry whirl?" during an argument between John and his father.

Lorraine is more sensitive than either her mother or John about sickness, aging, and death. She tries to get John to stop smoking, she's bothered by her mother's crass attitudes towards the patients, and she is...

(The entire section is 3,793 words.)